This instinct to measure and compare doesn’t disappear once people have an obscene amount of money. “The problem is, Am I doing better than I was? is only [moving people in] one direction, which is up,” Norton says. And if a family amasses, say, $50 million but upgrades to a neighborhood where everyone has that much money (or more), they feel a lot less rich than if they had stuck to the peer comparisons they were making tens of millions of dollars ago. Hence the ever-shifting goalposts of wealth and satisfaction.
The research Norton has conducted illustrating this phenomenon is dispiriting. In a paper published earlier this year, he and his collaborators asked more than 2,000 people who have a net worth of at least $1 million (including many whose wealth far exceeded that threshold) how happy they were on a scale of one to 10, and then how much more money they would need to get to 10. “All the way up the income-wealth spectrum,” Norton told me, “basically everyone says [they’d need] two or three times as much” to be perfectly happy.